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Abraham and the Boom and Bust of Ur

by May 14, 2014

By Cam Rea

Abraham traveling
What do we really know about Abraham?

Well, it was written in Genesis that his birth name was Abram, before God changed his name to Abraham, and that he was the son of Terah. Additionally, we can conjecture that he was born sometime during the 20th century BCE and dwelt in the land of Ur, commonly referred to as Ur III by historians.
A Sumerian city-state at one time, Ur had expanded its territory substantially in the 22nd or 20th century BCE, and was where the ruling dynasty was located. During the time of Abraham’s stay, Ur was, for the most part, prosperous, but that didn’t last long. It never made it to its full potential.
Then, at one point, the family patriarch, Terah, decided to move. According to Genesis, Abraham, his wife, and Lot, Terah’s grandson, went with him and eventually settled in Haran.

But the question remains, why did Abraham’s family live in Ur and then eventually leave?

The answer is not simple or conclusive, and of course, while we can come up with many reasons, we’ll never know for certain. One possibility, however, as to why they went to Ur, only to later pack up and to head north, was due to the economy.

The Empire of Ur boomed when the ruler Ur-Nammu ascended the throne, after Sumer King Utu-Hegal had died. Ur-Nammu was likely the governor of Ur at the time and when Utu-hegal passed away, he left a power vacuum in the region, just waiting to be confiscated.
Unfortunately the specific reasons for Ur-Nammu’s success, such as his battles for territorial expansion, are not well documented. We do know, however, that he broadened his borders and sphere of influence significantly, making Ur a respectable power in the region.
Moreover and very importantly, Ur-Nammu’s conquests stabilized Ur.
He, “freed the land of thieves, robbers and rebels.” He revived the agricultural industry, dug new canals to improve communications, and fortified a number of towns, in case of any future attacks. Most famously, he oversaw the creation of a number of ziggurats.

Overall, Ur-Nammu was the king of public works and restoration, which allowed the population to conduct business and to go about their lives without fear.

And when Ur-Nammu passed away, his son Shugli carried the torch. He continued the building and refurbishing of temples, along with the construction of a defensive wall at the narrow waist of the Tigris-Euphrates to guard against attacks from the west.
Both father and son fortified the empire, which enabled business to expand beyond the borders. Grain from Gursu, in modern day Turkey, provided a secure food supply. Umma, a nearby Sumerian city-state, provided wood, reeds, and leather. Copper, tin, and luxuries came all the way from Northern India and Afghanistan.
Much of the produce shipped eastward, such as fish, textiles, barley, and wheat, were classified as exchangeable goods by the palace of Ur-Nammu.
Map of Ur III
With commodities flowing soundly and without hindrance, wealth increased. With an increase in prosperity, the people began to use money, particularly silver, instead of the previously preferred method of bartering. The quantity of silver circulating into Ur allowed just about everyone to spend or save.

But there was one glitch.

Ur-Nammu and his successors realised that they could control things to their benefit through their own merchants (mercantile). They did this by fixing the prices of the commodities and pegging them to silver.
Previously, items like copper, tin, lumber, spices, wines, and cattle fluctuated greatly in the marketplace, organically responding to the supply and demand of each seller and buyer. In fact, it had functioned quite well as a democratically driven exchange. But then the government of Ur decided to tamper with the price structure of the market, pegging items to a certain ratio of silver.
Steele of Ur-Nammu
By interfering, the rulers inadvertently caused production to divert from one channel to another, which in turn, created shortages.
When Ibbi-Sin, the last ruler of Ur took power, the market had spiraled out of control… with devastating effects.
While food was still available in the countryside, consumers were paying a hefty price because the suppliers demanded higher payments in silver to cover their losses. If people couldn’t cover the bill, they exchanged certain privileges, such as titles and authority from the king, as back payment. Workers soon rose up and disorder ensued. With the workers in revolt, wealthy farmers entered the downtrodden cities buying, lending, or forcing their way to elitism.
Eventually, merchants operated on their own in order to avoid the set prices. International trade began to pass into the hands of the self-employed, leaving the crown merchants behind. By 2000 BCE, the trading pattern had become far more complex, as the concept of private enterprise expansively grew across Mesopotamia.

What was once the function of the state was now, once again, in private hands, and out of the powers of Ur.

Consequently, the end of Ur finally happened around 2004/1940 BCE (depending on the chronology). It was officially all over when the Elamites and Amorites overran the Empire and dismantled it.

While we can never know for certain, we can hypothesize that Terah moved the family into Ur, seeking to prosper from the booming economy. As time went on and the market became unstable, Terah decided it was best to move out of the land of Ur. Abraham, along with the rest, followed, most likely due to the economy spiraling out of control, making life harder to prosper in the Empire. The rest, as they say, is history.


by July 22, 2013


Corinthian Vase

A dominant city-state in ancient Greece, Corinth would grow to prominence as a trading center in the early Mycenaean age and then would decline with much of mainland Greece in the years following the collapse of the Mycenaean empire. A city built on the Isthmus of Corinth, it was located between ancient Sparta and Athens. It is believed that after the Bronze Age, Corinth would be re inhabited sometime around 900 BCE and grow to become a prosperous city during the Classical and Hellenistic period of Greece.
Corinth is a site for many popular myths and legends of ancient Greece. It has been told  that Corinth was founded by Corinthos, a descendant of Helios, the sun god. Corinth is also the city where Jason, leader of the Argonauts, is said to have abandoned Medea. It is said that the city of Corinth engaged in the Trojan War under the leadership of Agamemnon. 

detail of Corinthian column

Corinth would become a major port of trade for the ancient world and would become very wealthy during Classical Greece. For a time Corinth would become the number one exporter of black figure pottery across Greece, until they were surpassed by the pottery exporters of Athens. Corinth is also notable for their development of Corinthian style architecture, which can bee seen in the very elaborately designed Corinthian columns.  The Corinthian columns also reflected the extravagant, highly stylized essence of Corinth.
Corinth supposedly possessed a temple to the goddess of love, Aphrodite. The temple supposedly housed hundreds of prostitutes who charged extravagant prices for the pleasure of their company. Much of the lifestyle in Corinth was similarly luxurious and very expensive. Corinth was so luxurious and expensive that it was noted by the poet Horace, that “Not everybody is able to go to Corinth”
Corinth would become involved in ancient warfare time and time again. It is believed that one of the factors leading to the Peloponnesian War involved a dispute between Athens and Corinth over the colony of Corcyra. Corinth would become a valuable ally to Sparta and would wage war against Athens as the Peloponnesian War escalated. Strangely, just as the Peloponnesian war ended, Corinth along with Athens, Argos and Thebes would become involved in the Corinthian war and battle the dominant Spartan Hegemony.


by June 6, 2013


Athens vs. Sparta

Athens and Sparta are often considered two of the most, if not the most, influential of the ancient Greek civilization; their progress in philosophy, literature and warfare would come to shape much of our idea of ancient Greece. There is no doubt that these civilizations were very influential.  However, it could be argued that they were influential in very different ways.

In fact, a case could be made that almost everything about these city-states was different. Athens was a civilization that rose from the plains and was exposed to the fresh air and the sea. They prided themselves in their discussions of politics and ethics, as well as their impressive contributions in literature and philosophy. Sparta was quite the opposite. A culture fortified in a deep valley, their civilization resembled more of an army encampment rather than a city. They were known for their devotion to military prowess and led a lifestyle that revolved around fighting and the glory of battle.
While Athens and Sparta were both dominant powers in ancient Greece, there existed a legendary rivalry between the two. This antagonism would flourish into The Peloponnesian War, a bloody engagement that would last for decades. Additionally, it is for their fierce rivalry and influence that they have often been the subject of much comparison and analysis.


spartan solider

statue of a Spartan warrior

Sparta, also known by its ancient name Lacedaemon in honor of their legendary founder, is often considered to have been the most dominant military presence in ancient Greece. Their infantry soldiers were suppose to have been the most skilled and fearsome warriors of the ancient world. They would owe their eventual victory in the Peloponnesian War to their dedication to warfare, and the ferocity of Spartan warriors would be later embellished in modern films such as 300.

This obsession with fighting was supported by their culture. The Spartan lifestyle, especially that of the Spartan men, was dedicated to learning the art of fighting and the craft of war. At birth, Spartan babies were examined for weaknesses. If they were deemed frail or deformed, they were tossed into a chasm on Mount Taygetos. At a young age the boys would be taken away from their homes and participate in an education system known as Agoge.  In this state mandated training curriculum, young male citizens would be taught how to be a warrior. They were educated in the ways of warfare, fighting as well as reading and writing. They would endure physical hardships and often be submitted to harsh, violent punishments.
This militaristic state was only possible because of the complex societal structure of Sparta. While native born Spartans enjoyed full rights and freedoms, there were others who were not so fortunate. The Perioikoi were a secondary type of Spartan citizen who, although not full citizens and therefore unable to participate in the Agoge training, still enjoyed freedom in the Spartan community. They acted as skilled craftsmen and reserve warriors when needed.

Leonidas at Thermopylae
by. Jacques-Louis David

The Helots were state owned serfs who bordered narrowly on being classified as slaves. The Helots were lower class citizens who were responsible for the agricultural stability of Sparta. It was only through the farming work of the Helots, that the other Spartans were able to free up their time to participate fully in their military training. Even though the Helots were essential to Spartan society, they were also prone to uprisings and would be a constant source of trouble for the Spartan city.
An interesting note about Spartan society was that women enjoyed a level of freedom that was unheard of in the ancient world. Spartan girls were fed the same food as their brothers, and they were not restricted to their homes as was common in Athens. The daughters and sisters of Sparta were allowed to play outdoors and even compete in sports. While it was common in other city-states to marry off girls at the age of 12 or 13, Spartan women tied the knot in their late teens or early twenties. This was done as an effort to spare women the health dangers of pregnancies in adolescents. As a result of their superior diet and bountiful exercise, Spartan women often lived into old age more frequently than in any other part of the ancient world.

Lagash and the Too Fertile Valley

by April 22, 2013

Tigris and Euphrates River

Tigris and Euphrates River

Between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers lies a land known as Mesopotamia. It was here that men found suitable terrain, which they proceeded to pierce, rip, and seed. Once these seeds took root, civilization was born.
Unlike pastoral societies that roam around looking for food, agriculturalists sought unity by teaming together, settling in one spot, and growing their food. In doing so, they created a village, a society of their own. However, it takes more than farming to create a state.
After a few generations, people slowly began to build upon their knowledge of agriculture, animal husbandry, and writing. With these new found skills, plus many more, the villages gained a greater sense of the self. Such awareness allowed for the creation of law, trade, private property, social interest, internal order and identification. This development enabled the Mesopotamian villages that dotted the landscape to evolve into a series of city-states.
The Sumerians were the first to carve out a civilization in Mesopotamia. By the third millennium BCE, the land of Sumer consisted of a dozen or more of these city-states. They were walled, but still surrounded by suburban villages and hamlets.
In addition, the city-states of Sumer were centralized. Their centrally controlled society needed an administration to conduct the day-to-day redistribution of resources and to direct all social activity.
Lagash, like other city-states of its time, shared control over resources and social activities between the palace and the temple. The temple oversaw a great amount of land and exerted a powerful influence over the inhabitants. Meanwhile, the palace authority controlled as much, if not more, land than the temple. This arrangement was fine until later on, when the palace wielded an even greater command over the people. In doing so, the king was able to amalgamate the palace with the temple, in which the king saw himself as god’s own representative on earth.
If god chooses the king, then logically the temple must obey. However, this settlement does not mean there would never be strife again between the palace and temple authorities. So long as they existed side by side, the ambition to control and hold a monopoly over the other’s institution was desirable, especially if one wishes to control the masses. The divinity of the king, therefore, placed the temple in a predicament.
Eannatum in Lagash

Map of the region

The power struggle in Lagash was even more enticing when one contemplates what was at stake. The city was located northwest of the junction of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and east of the city Uruk. Lagash was a fertile area, with irrigation canals feeding its farms via the Shatt al-Gharraf channel that filtered from the famous waters.
Consequently, Lagash grew bountiful crops and its location made it a prime economic powerhouse. Its convenient waterways were instrumental for commerce. For a substantial period, commercial competition between Lagash and the other city-states was healthy. There comes a time, however, when hostility rises and the need to settle disputes requires war.
Sculpture of Eannatum

Sculpture of Eannatum

Enter Eannatum, King of Lagash (c. 2455-2425 BCE), who established the first Mesopotamian empire in history through constant warring. But how did Eannatum achieve this, how did he create the first verifiable empire in history?
Eannatum, son of King Akurgal of Lagash, ascended the throne after his father got into a bit of a squabble with his northwestern neighbors, the city-state of Umma. Eannatum’s spat with Umma would lead him on a quest for dominance in the region… which would ultimately ruin his empire.
Tune in Next Week to see how Eannatum conquers the fertile crescent and builds the first empire.
“Lagash and the Too Fertile Valley” was written By Cam Rea
Cam Rea has a BA and MA in Military History. He recently published “March of the Scythians: From Sargon II to the Fall of Nineveh.” In addition, he is an ancient history junky and a Teaching Assistant at the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
You can also grab the book on kindle HERE.